When You Should "Simmer" And When You Should "Boil"

To simmer and boil are two different ways of cooking.

When a recipe calls for a simmer, a gentle boil, or a full boil, what does it mean? Does it really make a difference? The answer is "Yes, it does make a difference!" It can be the difference between flavorless and flavorful, tender and rubbery, or clumpy and creamy.

What does boiling look like?

When a recipe directs you to bring your liquid to boil, it means your heat should be hot enough to make the liquid produce big bubbles. When it says a rolling boil or a full boil, the bubbling is more vigorous. Once your liquid starts boiling, it's advised to temper your heat at just the right, constant mode or flame to maintian boiling. A larger flame, or higher heat, will not make a difference, except you'll be expending more fuel or electricity-depending on your stove.

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1 Boil to cook starchy vegetables until tender.

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Usually hard, root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots, or starchy grains like rice and beans, need to be boiled until tender. Place your vegetables in the pot and then turn on the heat.

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2 Boil to cook soft- or hard-boiled eggs.

Whole eggs need to be placed into boiling water. To avoid cracking, add vinegar and salt to your mixture right before adding the eggs.

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Photo by Patrick Martires

3 Boil to blanch vegetables or seafood.

When you boil vegetables, you want your water to be boiling vigorously so that the vegetables or seafood will be cooked as quickly as possible. After boiling your food for a few minutes or seconds (which depends on what it is and how big they're cut), they're taken out and then immediately shocked into an ice-water bath until they're cool enough to touch. This ensures that they stop cooking and preserves the color.  

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4 Boil to sterilize jars.

When sterilizing jars for preserved food such as Spanish sardines, jam, or pickles, you want to put your jars in water that is at a full boil for 10 minutes. This ensures that you kill all pathogens to make it food safe for storage.

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Why do we boil right before simmering?

There is a reason your recipe might call for you to bring your pot to a boil, only to make you simmer it right after. Here are some reasons:

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5 Boil to activate thickeners.

When it follows the step after you add a starch or gulaman granules, boiling then simmering is done to activate its thickening properties.

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6 Boil to pasteurize food. 

For cream, it's done traditionally because in some cases, the cream was unpasteurized. So, boiling the cream first ensured that the cream was bacteria-free. However, most of us use packaged sterilized cream that doesn't need to be pasteurized. If you're heating cream for ganache, we suggest you only simmer your cream.

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7 Boil to cook more evenly.

When you reach the boiling point, your whole pot reaches the same temperature as molecules start moving in a fast, circular motion, making sure every bit of it is being cooked. Even when you drop it down to a simmer, it continues cooking steadily.

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What does simmering look like?

A gentle simmer means bring your liquid to a state where small bubbles emerge from the sides of your pot or pan, or only at the center of your pan. A simmer, steady simmer, or sometimes called a gentle boil, means more consistent but still small bubbles are produced.

Photo by Patrick Martires

1 Simmer to slow cook and braise. 

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A gentle heat lets flavors mingle and develop without losing any important compounds to high heat. Low and slow is the way to go not just for developing flavor, but also for getting your meat extremely tender.

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2 Simmer to reduce and thicken liquids. 

Just like slow cooking or braising, low heat will help care for and develop flavors. This is especially important when reducing a liquid. You want it hot enough to help the water evaporate, but not hot enough to burn away all the good, flavorful stuff in soups, stews, broths, and stocks.

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3 Simmer to cook custard.

Whether you're steaming leche flan or a savory custard or making luscious pastry cream, if you're adding egg yolks to your mixture, never boil your mixture unless you want scrambled eggs! For flans, cooking it at a low heat will result in the most velveteen texture but if you don't go low and slow, it might cause the mixture to bubble and produce air bubbles which develop from the sides or curdle your eggs into a big solid masses.

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See Also

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4 Simmer when using a double boiler.

You use a double boiler in general for one important thing: for an even gently heat. You might want to boil the water first, but once your mixture is in the bowl, you need to keep that water down to a steady simmer. This is especially important if you're melting chocolate or making a hollandaise-based sauce.

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Photo by Courtesy of Pixabay.

5 Simmer when heating milk. 

Unless your particular recipe wants you to scald milk, its best only to simmer it. Boiling may cause your milk to curdle, where the milk components and butterfat begin to separate.

Knowing the difference between simmering and boiling will change your cooking game forever. If you've ever wondered about a dish losing flavor, this might just be why. Are you ready to try out your new skills? Here are some slow cooking recipes. 

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